In the morning hours before NASA's InSight spacecraft entered the Mars atmosphere, approximately 30 employees were gathered in Lockheed Martin…
In the morning hours before NASA’s InSight spacecraft entered the Mars atmosphere, approximately 30 employees were gathered in Lockheed Martin in the company’s InSight Mission Support Area in Denver. They all had the same red button-down shirt ornamented with a mission patch. Someone had teased red plastic over some of the fluorescent lights, to lend the room a martian atmosphere. When the last hours crossed before InSight broke the Mars atmosphere and led to the surface, there was not much to do besides waiting and worries.
Engineers had sent landing commands to spacecraft a few days ago, now embarking on small bombs, waiting for the right time to perform themselves. “We can not control it,” said Tim Linn, leader of spacecraft entry, descent and landing. The time it takes communications to travel from Earth to the landlord is longer than it takes for the landlord to fire on Mars, so everything is preprogrammed.
In California at Jet Propulsion Laboratory, researchers and engineers managed mission management and navigation while Lockheed led spacecraft operations. It includes the preset commands for safely setting NASA’s InSight lander on Mars. And today is their big day: Six months after the lander left the earth, it comes on the Red planet ̵
1; hopefully with a soft plop and not a smash. The team has done a lot of work to ensure that the latter option does not occur, but you know it’s Mars. It is far away and weird, and only about 40 percent of spacecraft that would reach Mars has made it successful.
Behind Linn’s head, on a giant screen, a graph showed Doppler data from InSight, red and blue joints indicating its speed. “At this point we can not have any hiccups,” he says, looking around in the room in the coupons where the team members sat silently in front of their computers. Round-top labels, each with a Mars depicting as background, declare different parts of the room intended for Ground Data Systems or Fault Protection or Flight Software. Many of the people who now staff the screens really helped build spacecraft. Sarah Brandt, a power engineer, spent three months at Vandenberg Air Force Base, helping spacecraft ready for launch. Today she says, feels like Christmas morning. Presents, sure: But even the outrage waits in advance.
A lot of space flight awaits. The almost 800-pound car was launched in May and has long been zipping against Mars. InSight and backronym for “Interior exploration using seismic surveys, geodesy and heat transport” – helps researchers understand how rocky planets form, here in the solar system and in the rest of the universe.
The first hundred million years of planet existence determine many of their more mature personality traits: what they are made of, how the atmosphere is, if the magnetic field wobbles around them. Mars has left on remains of these early processes, in a way that the earth, with its regular geological makeup, does not have.
InSight aims to understand them. It has an instrument that will measure seismic activity (and retrieve from the meteorite impact), a type of thermometer that sticks 16 meters below the martian surface and a device that will utilize Red Planet’s rotation. But before these instruments can do their jobs, they have to make the long trip to Mars – a difficult trip, no matter how many times people have sent spacecraft there.
InSight was quite certain in space’s long emptiness, but it had a last mile problem: how to let the atmosphere go to kill the ground safely. Securing the final phase of its transit was largely the job of Lockheed engineers, who led InSight’s design and manufacturing, including equipment that slows it down from 12,300 miles per hour when it enters the atmosphere to zero at the surface.  At the insertion point, InSight turns heat protection forward to protect its sensitive parts, as the heat builds up to 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit. The friction of this leg on the journey slows InSight down to less than 1000 miles per hour. Then a parachute is deposited and the heat shield is dropped. InSight’s three legs run out like turtle legs and a radar system scans for the surface. A back cover hanging with the parachute releases and InSight burns up their thrusters.
Just joking! At each step of that process, the mission can go aside, and there is nothing that any of Lockheed or JPL can do. When engineers get a word like InSight has entered the Mars atmosphere, it will already be landed or crashed.
When approaching time approached, a small blue dot representing InSight clings closer and closer to an illustrated Mars on a prominent screen on Lockheed. Another screen featured the last milestones of the journey and crossed them methodically. People grouped in front of the screens, mumbling.
A voice from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory came across the speakers in Denver. According to the sound, two small satellites who traveled with InSight, together called the MarCO mission, worked. Their job was to pick up pings from InSight and send the content back to earth. Radio telescopes on Earth also collected some transfers from the landlord.
Soon the spacecraft went into the atmosphere. “Blackout is possible under peak heat”, warns the voice. An illustrated version of InSight, which looks like a powerful coffee filter, arced across a screen called “Simulation of Predicted Performance.” The martian horizon bent beneath it.
Voice read InSights speed: 2,000 meters per second. 1000 meters per second. The parachute will distribute soon, she says. But the only way to know if it’s happened is to watch a sudden change in speed, a significantly different Doppler switch in the signal.
So when the voice says “Sudden change in Doppler”, the whole room clicks for a short second, and then goes silent.
“Radar begins to search for the ground … 30 meters … 20 meters … 17 meters … stands for touchdown.”
And then it comes: Touchdown.
The maroon-shirted engineers began to pat again, and soon they grew more raucous. Handshakes gave way to the rise of arms-Vs. Woos turned into full-throated whoops.
Any voice that rises over your mouth says, “It will never be easier.”
More detailed information about InSight’s travel and physical conditions is expected to arrive soon from spacecraft that surrounds Mars itself: Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Mars Odyssey. Odyssey should confirm whether InSight has successfully utilized its sunshine, which will need to keep it alive now when it is landed safely. These data will arrive at Lockheed only one floor below the InSight control room, in another area called Deep Space Mission Operations.
Wall murals in the walls adorn this room in the lower room, where engineers also work with spacecraft like the Spitzer Space Telescope and OSIRIS-REX, an asteroid sample return mission coming to their destination next month, in addition to the two Mars orbits. “How often will we land on Mars?” Says Beth Buck, Program Manager for Program Operations, who at least has a shot at landing on Mars far more often than most.
After InSight landed safely, Buck leaves the room and passes a wall covered by InSight art and facts. An item in the gallery listed today’s date: November 26, 2018. Landing Day. Before that, it had a symbolic meaning – as a motivation poster, perhaps. Now it has assumed its new identity as a cold, hard fact.